Volatile insurance exchanges create stress for consumers, disruption for insurers

For consumers, another open enrollment period on the federal health insurance exchange may mean some stressful shopping around for a new health plan. For insurers, it may make what is already a volatile marketplace even more so, as many customers switch plans looking for lower prices and coverage that includes their preferred physicians and hospitals.

Annual changes in prices and policies by insurers are driving many consumers to switch their health plans each year, according to the New York Times. With the opening of the third enrollment season for the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, it's another shopping season for many consumers.

"Every year I feel like I'm starting all over again and I just dread it," Gail Galen, a 63-year-old woman living in Warrenton, Oregon, told the newspaper. "My stress level just shoots up." Galen said she has switched insurers three years in a row because of hikes to her premiums and changes in doctor networks.

The plan-switching stress on consumers carries over to payers, who see members come and go. Insurers are shifting strategies amid the challenges of the exchange market, with some expanding their reach and others experimenting with retooled plan offerings, FierceHealthPayer previously reported.

Across the board, health insurers have adjusted their offerings on the ACA exchanges for 2016, offering more plans with narrow networks and fewer preferred provider organization plans.

In 2015, about half of returning HealthCare.gov customers shopped around before settling on a health plan, and about 25 percent switched plans, a number far more than many experts predicted, according to the Times article.

While shopping around can save consumers money, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found premiums for the lowest-cost silver plans in 2015 have shifted in 2016, they may be forced to switch insurance carriers and providers. However, the Obama administration is encouraging switching to avoid steep increases in premiums, and estimates that 86 percent of people who currently have coverage through the federal exchange can find a better deal by switching, the Times reported.

Another factor in 2016 that has many people shopping for a new health plan is the closing of more than half of the 23 nonprofit consumer operated and oriented plans (CO-OPs) that covered about 740,000 individuals and small business employees across the country.

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